Day two. I received my first dose of the Pfizer COVID vaccine on Saturday morning. I had a bit of a headache that afternoon but otherwise, no side effects. The next day, Sunday, day two, I woke up with some aches and pains, but at my age, it’s hard to tell if those were new or normal. I forget. Others complain about a lot of pain in the arm where they got the shot, but not so much for me, at least nothing that a few painkillers couldn’t handle.
Having gotten an mRNA vaccine, my body is now reacting to a fake infection. The vaccine does not contain the actual Coronavirus but rather a set of instructions and a kick in the shin. If we imagine a Coronavirus as a tennis ball with a certain LEGO piece stuck all around it (see illustration below), then the instructions are for what particular LEGO piece that is. The kick to the shin is to get the attention of our immune system so it will look for that piece and then destroy it wherever it’s found.
The scientific words are “spike protein” for the LEGO piece and “antigen” for the kick to the shin. To put it simply, the spike protein is the part of this virus that “plugs into” our cells. It’s particularly configured to do that very easily. But if the vaccine only contained the bit about describing the spike protein, our body might not notice, so the antigen is just enough of an irritant for our immune system to think it’s been invaded by something bad (even though it is really only fake). My headache was because of the antigen. A sore arm would be too. These aches and pains are caused by inflammation of tissue, and inflammation is a good sign that our body is doing what it’s supposed to be doing.
The antigen is nothing to worry about. It’s not a disease, but just a little something that looks foreign enough to our immune system to warrant some attention. It’s like a splinter, or maybe just one of the millions of outside things we breathe into our systems every day. But this one, in particular, is meant to really make a splash, like a swift kick to the shin.
So, right now, my body is manufacturing those LEGO pieces according to a set of instructions and flaunting them in front of a certain type of our white blood cells called macrophages. These are the garbage collectors in our blood that swallow up and dispose of any rubbish that gets inside. They are exactly like a Pac-Man eating ghosts. Among these white blood cells are certain ones called lymphocytes — of a B- and T-variety — that take care of our own cells that may already be infected. The B-lymphocytes produce antibodies that work as a salve against future infection, and the T-lymphocytes are the ones that remember and record this whole event in case we ever get infected like this again. This explanation is a simplification, of course, but the technical description of these mechanics is dense and complicated and practically requires a degree in biology.
The amount of vaccine injected is 0.3 mL, or about as much Visine as you might spill into both of your eyes. It’s not a lot (1/20th of a teaspoon) — and almost entirely inert — but there are enough instructions and kicks to the shin to last a few weeks. In that time, our bodies develop enough of those lymphocytes to last a good long while, maybe 6 months or so (?), possibly a year or more (?), but hopefully, long enough for the worst of COVID to be behind us.
At two weeks, I will be completely recovered from the first shot, and then at three weeks, I get a second shot, a booster, so that my body will make even more lymphocytes. We get two shots instead of one because when they were first testing these vaccines, they discovered that too many people were getting too many side effects with the one dose, so they spread it out to two so it wouldn’t be so bad. People won’t get a shot if it makes them sick.
But the first shot might make the second shot easier (after all, we’ll already have lymphocytes by then), and a few weeks after the second shot, we’ll be as prepared for a COVID infection as we will ever be. We can still catch COVID — that always needs to happen before our immune system kicks in — but when we catch it, the disease will not amount to much since our lymphocytes will vanquish it in a matter of days. This is a huge difference compared to the several weeks to a month that an unvaccinated bout with COVID could last. And since we won’t get very sick, we are much less likely to spread it, which is the point of this whole exercise. People can’t catch something that’s not going around, and the vaccine helps minimizes that. It’s math.
On the third day after the first Pfizer dose, my shoulder is sore where I got the shot, and my temp is 98.7° (a degree above my usual 97.6°). I feel fine, though I’ve been taking it easy, which helps.
The vaccine goes into our shoulder’s deltoid muscle because we use it a lot. Also, muscles have lots of blood surging through them, and this gets the mRNA and antigens circulating into our body as quickly as can be. Shots used to go into our gluteus maximus (our rump), but there’s a lot of fat back there where stuff tends to hang out, especially when we’re laying around on a couch.
One weird thing I can report is a few nights of wild dreams. Apparently, this is a known side effect, though not necessarily due to the vaccine itself but perhaps our changing state of mind.
We dream for many reasons, but a consensus understanding is that our brain is flushing away unimportant memories and sorting through complicated thoughts and feelings. Research shows that sleep also helps store memories.
In my life, I’ve noticed that I have particularly vivid dreams after experiencing something new and exciting, such as the first time I go skiing after a long while off the slopes, or when traveling to an exotic place, or moving into a new house. A night in Las Vegas is good for this, too, probably due to all that audial and visual stimulation. Our brain needs to process that stuff and determine if any of it is important. Sometimes it is (like when moving into a new house), but sometimes it’s not (ahem, Las Vegas).
Now I’m no expert, but I’m going to go out on a limb and venture that the COVID dreams result from relief. It seems like a good enough reason to me. I don’t think we sufficiently appreciate the stress we’ve been under during this pandemic. In a year, we’ve accumulated a lot that we’ve tended to bury deep. The first dose of vaccine does not get any of us out of the woods — yet — but I believe we know deep inside that we’re almost home free. At the very least, a few weeks of brewing up a good batch of COVID-resistant lymphocytes is probably enough to let us rest easy. Our body knows more than we do.
Plus, I’m running a degree hot, and yep, fever dreams.
My advice so far: Get the shot in the arm opposite your handedness and schedule the appointment for early in the day so you have plenty of opportunity to move that arm around alot before sleeping on it. Store up a few days of ready-made meals to eat and give yourself a few days off, preferably the weekend. And enjoy the dreams. You earned them.
On this fourth day after the first dose of the Pfizer COVID vaccine, I would be hard-pressed to feel any lingering effects. My temp is down to its slightly cold self, my arm is not sore, and my dreams were entirely abnormal last night, per usual. Actually, I feel perfectly fine after just 72 hours and change.
People might be inclined to say I’m among “the lucky ones,” but that’s a bit upside-down. Almost everyone who gets the vaccine is over it, just like me. We can’t all be “lucky” if this is par for the course. We’re the normal ones. Regulars. Instead, it’s the very rare few who are “unlucky,” which means they might get a bad rash or a fever and feel the effects for a few days more. But they’ll get over it too, just like the 92.1 million others (and counting).
But even the “unlucky” ones aren’t a victim of the vaccine itself, but rather of histamine. Histamine is a tiny little crystal — just 17 atoms big — stored in specialized cells near our capillaries, mostly in the places where injury comes to us easily, like the eyes, nose, mouth, and feet. They are an early warning of sorts. Whenever we encounter an injury (a splinter or bee sting) or an invader (pollen or pathogen), they jump into service, causing us to sneeze, swell, or release pus or mucous.
Hives can sometimes be the result, and these are actually a ruse. Histamine crystals flood the injury area and antagonize the tissue, puffing up our skin and causing us to itch and scratch and puff things up even more. The swelling makes room for the capillaries to open up, engorging the local infrastructure with blood, but mostly the white blood cells that will go to work fixing the problem.
But when a histamine response goes haywire — as with the “unlucky” ones — it’s not because of the injury or irritant or the antigens in a vaccine, but due to the victim’s own hyperactive defense. This is why a bee sting is just a bee sting to most people but an emergency event to an unfortunate few — the histamine overreacts and doesn’t know when to quit, pinching off critical blood vessels or airways until an antihistamine is needed to save the day. It’s not the bee that was life-threatening, it’s the overreaction.
But here’s the thing: Those people could very well have the same overreaction to the virus itself. In fact, COVID, in particular, is most dangerous when the victim’s systems overreact to the infection. This is what is suspected of causing the “cytokine storm” that has killed many COVID victims — hives, if you will, inside the lungs or other membranes in the body, an overreaction at the cellular level.
The truly wonderful thing about the COVID vaccine is that practically no one has developed a serious enough case of COVID to warrant hospitalization among the millions of those who have been given a dose. IOW, the shot seems to stem the overreaction, or at least stop the infection before it has the chance to trigger a chain reaction that tumbles into overreaction.
In this way, at least, the vaccine is an ounce of prevention to avoid a pound of cure. Or things much heavier than that.
It’s been five days now since my first dose of the Pfizer COVID vaccine, and I’m back to my rickety old self — still on the couch, but up and at 'em, back to the grind as if nothing happened. But something did.
I’ve got this tingling sense of accomplishment and an ever-so-slight spring in my step (even if it’s just to the fridge and back). That could be the dopamine talking. Our brain gives us spritzes of the stuff whenever we accomplish something. Over the centuries, this has assured human survival by getting us up off our duffs. It’s not just the paycheck, you know. Those came much later on.
Not often in our life will we be as starved of dopamine as we have been this past year. Sure, there’s the work (if you have it) or the workouts (though not the same), and there are the ventures to the store (if you dare), but these are not accomplishments that draw that long tall bath of dopamine you get after a constructive conversation or a day of making people’s day. Smiles, those were the ticket. We’ve been missing days full of those.
So we do our best to accomplish what we may and then marvel at the newly organized kitchen or freshly mowed lawn, soaking in whatever spritz we can get from whatever we muster. But these things are the absolute minimum. It just doesn’t do it to don the mask and social distance all day. Those are expected, a duty, not an accomplishment.
But getting the shot feels like making a difference. It’s really putting ourselves out there—one small shot for a human, one giant leap for humankind. And I think it helps that it knocks us down for a spell and lingers a bit with that punch in the arm. The rough and tumble make us feel more like a trooper, doing our part for the good of the team. It wouldn’t feel as good if it were painless. No pain, no gain.
On this sixth day since my first dose of the Pfizer COVID vaccine, I am feeling fortunate. “Luck” is something that can be good or bad, but “fortune” is when the cards are stacked in your favor. That’s how I feel now.
There are many variables in the chances against catching COVID — your age, your relative health, your propensity to go out and about, your willingness to be recklessly irresponsible.
On average, COVID is a particularly contagious and lethal disease compared to other common diseases. This is why every country on the planet has taken extraordinary measures to contain this thing — the math is unfortunate enough to warrant our concern.
Let’s put it this way: It would be reasonable to compare contracting COVID with the chance of drawing any jack from a deck of cards — a jack of hearts, spades, diamonds, or clubs. That’s a 7% chance. As of March 2021, roughly 8% of Americans have caught COVID. About the same. Maybe you won’t draw a jack the first time, but if every time you went out into the world you drew another card, and then another, what would be your chances after weeks go by? Months? Years? Again and again. Would you draw a jack? Do you still trust your chances?
And then consider the odds that a one-eyed jack would mean you get seriously sick, especially if you are already high-risk. And then consider that the jack of hearts specifically might just kill you. Do you still trust your chances? Pick a card, any card. It could be your last one.
High stakes. Life doesn’t need to be this way. Get the shot.